Ranked Choice Voting Returns to New York City

By Kaycie Goral by on February 04, 2021

The launch of the "Yes on 1" campaign Summer 2019, Photo Source: RepresentWomen

On Tuesday, ranked choice voting (RCV) returned to New York City - putting an end to a 74 year hiatus of the voting system. Following the success of the “Yes on 1” ballot measure in November 2019, ranked choice voting will be used for the first time since 1947 in NYC to fill a Queen’s city council seat that has been vacant since November 2020. In the coming months, ranked choice voting will also be used in at least four local elections and the highly-contested New York City mayoral primary in June.

New York City joins 20 other local jurisdictions and the state of Maine already using the system. To date, 21 local jurisdictions use ranked choice voting in the United States. Between 2018 and 2020, an additional eight municipalities and Alaska adopted ranked choice voting. This system is also used in six states for overseas voters, colleges and universities across the country, and within private organizations - including the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. 


The expanded use of ranked choice voting in the United States is an exciting development, because ranked choice elections are often associated with greater turnout and positive outcomes for women and people of color. According to recent research, ranked choice voting stands to improve the descriptive representation of women in government by rewarding positive, issue-focused campaign styles, reducing the cost of elections, and eliminating the “spoiler effect.” Overall, ranked choice voting ensures that elected officials win with a majority of support rather than a plurality of votes, and this is crucial for both women and people of color. According to officials elected by RCV, they govern better when they have majority support.


In a ranked choice election, voters rank candidates in order of preference. In races where there is one winner, the candidate who receives a majority (50% +1) of first-choice votes wins. But, if no candidate receives a majority of votes in the first round, the candidate with the fewest votes is eliminated. Ballots with the eliminated candidate ranked first are then reallocated to their second-choice candidates; this process continues until a candidate receives 51 percent of votes.


The history of RCV in NYC 

While it is true that ranked choice voting is gaining new momentum and popularity across the United States today, it has a long history of use in U.S. cities, and many historical “firsts” for women and people of color were achieved while ranked choice voting was in practice. 


In 1936, following rampant corruption and the political stranglehold of Tammany Hall, voters in New York City adopted electoral reform measures including ranked choice voting in its proportional form, often referred to as the single transferable vote, to elect the Board of Aldermen, a precursor to the modern city council. The implementation of ranked choice voting led to the election of the first woman, Genevieve Beavers, and the first African-American man, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to the New York City Board of Aldermen.


In addition to paving the way for these historic representation victories for women and the Black community in the city, ranked choice voting fostered a vibrant system that prevented the Board from continuing as a “rubber stamp” for the Democratic political machine. While ranked choice voting was in use, the Board of Aldermen featured lively debate, cross-party coalitions, and consensus building. This revitalized political climate resulted in 80 percent of all city legislation passing unanimously between 1936 and 1947. 


Despite the successes of the Board of Aldermen over the course of a decade, ranked choice voting was ultimately repealed in 1947. As the Cold War took effect and the Red Scare began to take hold across the country, opponents of ranked choice voting campaigned for repeal focusing on the election of communist candidates to the Board of Aldermen. Going so far as to call the voting system “the first beachhead of Communist infiltration in this country.” 


Ranked choice voting was replaced with the winner-take-all system which prevails in much of America to this day. Unlike ranked choice voting, winner-take-all systems reinforce partisan divides, encourage expensive and negative campaigns, and inherently favor incumbents at the expense of new and diverse voices. 


Ranked choice voting going forward

On November 5, 2019, New Yorkers overwhelmingly voted “yes” on Measure 1, doubling the number of people living in ranked choice voting jurisdictions. New York City elections in 2021 are expected to attract around 500 candidates for a variety of posts including city council seats, borough presidencies, and mayor.


Along with ensuring the winners of these primary and general elections will receive a majority of votes, ranked choice voting will also ...

  • Save the city money, by eliminating the need for costly runoffs
  • Incentivize positive, issue-focused campaigns 
  • Encourage grass-roots organizing and coalition-building
  • Pave the way for increased gender, racial and political diversity among elected officials


Ranked choice voting not only ensures majority winners, it also eliminates the possibility of splitting votes—making candidates like women and people of color, more politically viable, and thereby increasing the likelihood that we can achieve diversity in our politics. 


In New York City, women make up 50 percent of the population, but only 25 percent of city councillors. No woman has ever been elected mayor. Sixty-nine percent of New York City residents identify as non-white, but people of color only hold 45 percent of the city council seats. David Dinkin remains the only person of color elected to the office of mayor. 


RepresentWomen’s latest report on ranked choice voting, “In Ranked Choice Elections, Women WIN,” found that between 2010 and 2019 women won 48 percent of all seats elected with ranked choice voting. Currently, 46 percent of mayors elected by ranked choice voting are women and 31 percent are people of color. In both 2020 and 2016, our research has shown a clear correlation between implementations of ranked choice voting and the improving descriptive representation of women and people of color in our elected bodies; it is a data-backed solution for the systemic problems in our democracy. 


Drawing from both historical and recent evidence, ranked choice voting has proven itself a powerful and effective method for increasing the representation for women and people of color in the United States. Before its repeal in 1947, ranked choice voting in New York City led to the election of the city’s first woman and Black representatives, revitalized the everyday politics of the Board of Aldermen, and contributed to successful policy making within the city. This is a feat that can once again be achieved with the re-implementation of ranked choice voting in 2021. 


Kaycie is a Communications Fellow for RepresentWomen. She is a recent graduate from American University with a BA in communications and criminal justice. Follow Kaycie on Twitter:@d_Kaycie